Ellis Explores 1787 Constitution in 'The Quartet'

By Hudson, Repps | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 17, 2015 | Go to article overview

Ellis Explores 1787 Constitution in 'The Quartet'


Hudson, Repps, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


When*7 p.m. Tuesday

Where*St. Louis County Library, 1640 South Lindbergh Boulevard

How much*Free

More info*314-994-3300

By Joseph J. Ellis

Published by Knopf, 290 pages, $27.95

Joseph J. Ellis begins "The Quartet" by noting that Lincoln made a historical error in his Gettysburg Address.

As every schoolchild knows, Lincoln began his most memorable speech with these words: "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this Continent a new Nation"

In "The Quartet," Ellis adds and this gets to his thesis in this most readable discussion of that dicey period after American revolutionaries had vanquished the British "No, not really. In 1776 thirteen American colonies declared themselves independent states that came together temporarily to win the war, then would go their separate ways."

When the revolution ended, Ellis writes, the 13 states were governed by the Articles of Confederation, which left them independent political bodies that could not be required to do anything by a central authority. Those states' citizens wanted to be left alone.

They wanted to farm and run their shops. They didn't want to pay taxes, and they didn't want anything to do with a new national government seated in some distant place. The last thing they wanted was a strong central government taxing them and telling them what to do. Sound familiar?

By early 1787, though, the quartet Ellis features George Washington, James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton and several others had the vision to see that the confederation wasn't working. The bill of particulars was long:

"[T]he states," Ellis writes, "had refused to honor their tax obligations during the war and their promises to fund veterans' pensions after the war; they had also refused to cooperate on internal improvements like roads and canals and had even imposed domestic tariffs on trade among themselves; they had encroached on federal authority by signing separate treaties with various Indian tribes, essentially stealing Native American land to line the pockets of local land speculators. ..."

On and on, including actions that prevented any kind of foreign policy with the British or French or Spanish, all European powers with claims in North America. …

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